Bose Scholars program immerses Indian undergrads in graduate research
In summer 2013, the Bose Scholars and Khorana Scholars programs brought 64 undergraduate students from India to the UW-Madison campus for an 11-week introduction to the world of graduate research.
Founded in 2007, the programs are partnerships among UW-Madison, the government of India, and the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum. Scholars from India visit American research institutions, and students from the United States visit universities in India—which is one of the world’s leading producers of engineers. Aseem Ansari, a professor of biochemistry, and Ken Shapiro, a professor of agricultural and applied economics, serve as the founding directors. Khorana began with a focus on life sciences, but has spawned its sister program, Bose, which has grown to include more and more students interested in engineering.
This year, many of the Bose Scholars visiting UW-Madison spent their time on the engineering campus, working with several College of Engineering faculty. One group worked with Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Parmesh Ramanathan to build a computational model of antibiotics production in bacteria. The model aims to help researchers find out how to make the organisms produce more antibiotics through genetic tinkering.
In the bigger picture, the students’ work might help many other researchers make up for a massive dearth of such models. One of the bacteria Ramanathan's students examined has been in use for at least 20 years, but there wasn’t yet a computational model for it until his Bose students produced one.
“Nationwide, there are probably less than 100 organisms for which computational models exist, out of perhaps billions,” Ramanathan says. “So producing one more is a not insignificant step for an eight-week time frame.”
A smaller group of students worked with Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Giri Venkataramanan to develop an accessible tool for power-electronics research. The result is a set of simple electrical components, such as transformers and capacitors, that magnetically link together. These "Pegos" can be reassembled to suit a given experiment, eliminating cost and waste and potentially making power-electronics research more accessible and safer for hobbyists. Venkataramanan says the traditional method of soldering together components leaves researchers stuck with a set configuration they’ll eventually have to throw out. But this new product is easy to take apart and reconfigure like a set of Legos, hence their playful nickname: “power-electronics Legos,” or “Pegos.”
Indian students in the program spend about 11 weeks on campus taking part in research projects and learning such skills as how to present research results, says Devesh Bhimsaria, a former Khorana Scholar currently working on his PhD at UW-Madison.
“The goal is to give students exposure to the research here,” Bhimsaria says. “American students also go to colleges in India, so it’s a culture-sharing program. They all learn something that they can incorporate into their research in their home countries.”
In an individual student’s career, the program, usually taken as students prepare to enter their final year of undergraduate studies, forms a bridge between the undergraduate experience and graduate research. As an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, Bhimsaria hadn’t even considered doing graduate work in the United States until he visited UW-Madison as a Khorana Scholar.
“When I came here, I saw how interdisciplinary the research is here, and it’s only starting to be that way in India,” he says.
It’s that interdisciplinary approach that has enabled Bhimsaria to combine his interests in electrical engineering and in genetics. He’s now both a PhD student in ECE and a biochemistry research assistant, and works with both Ansari and Ramanathan.
Ramanathan says that interdisciplinary element was crucial for his Bose students this summer.
“We had electrical engineers, computer scientists and chemical engineers,” Ramanathan says. “Part of the reason this kind of modeling hasn’t been done before is that these areas of expertise haven’t been working together.”